It took longer than he ever imagined, and maybe he was stubborn for far too long.
Yet if you really thought Oakland Athletics first baseman Yonder Alonso was going to give up when he was nearly non-tendered in December, if you really believed Alonso was going to be content having a pedestrian career, you really don’t know the man.
“This is one of the greatest guys you’ll meet in your life,” says Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols, who is on the brink of history with 599 home runs. “He’s a guy that everyone in this game roots for. We all know what he had to overcome, the sacrifices his family made and the person he became.
“Look what he’s doing now.”
Indeed, after defecting from Cuba when he was 10 with his parents and little sister with no possessions but the clothes on their backs; getting a scholarship to play baseball at the University of Miami; being picked seventh overall in the 2008 draft by the Cincinnati Reds; bouncing around with three teams, and nearly getting released by the A’s in the offseason, Alonso has arrived at age 30.
He performed an autopsy on his swing this winter and had a transformation, and today you can hardly recognize him as he emerges as one of the game’s finest power hitters.
The same guy who never hit more than nine home runs in a season is among the league leaders with 14 in the first two months. He played only 20 games in May, bothered by a sore left knee and bruised wrist, but still hit 10 home runs, the most by any hitter in the majors.
It’s not just the home runs, either. He’s hitting .285 with 31 RBI to go along with a .384 on-base percentage and a .642 slugging percentage.
Who could possibly have imagined that Alonso would have superior numbers heading into June than his brother-in-law, Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, who is married to Alonso’s sister, Yainee?
“We talk almost every single day, but believe me, I never bring that up,” Alonso tells USA TODAY Sports. “Come on, it’s Manny. You can’t have bragging rights knowing how quick that can change.”
Besides, if you want to know the truth, no one is enjoying Alonso’s resurgence more than Machado, a three-time All-Star who leads the voting among American League third basemen and dreams of being teammates next month with his brother-in-law in their hometown of Miami at the All-Star Game.
“Words can’t describe how special and meaningful it would be for him and our family,” Machado said. “Just knowing all of the hard work he put in to get to this situation. I don’t know if anyone wants to see it more than I do. I’d love to see him at that All-Star Game.
“I’ve never seen anybody work as hard or do what he did, actually re-creating himself to become the hitter he is today. He deserves this.”
When Alonso finished last season hitting .253 with seven homers and 56 RBI, with the fourth-lowest slugging percentage (.367) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.683) in the AL, he knew the time had come.
Alonso had to overhaul his swing if he wanted to stay in the game. He talked to everyone from Carlos Beltran to Rougned Odor to Pujols to Adrian Beltre to Bryce Harper to Eric Hosmer, discussing their individual hitting approach and trying to design a swing that could work for him.
He incorporated video work along with his offseason batting cage efforts, analyzing different swings frame by frame.
“I wanted him to do this for years,” Machado says. “We would argue back and forth on what to do, but he’s the one who put his mind to it and did it.”
Says Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who was a Padres coach for four years when Alonso was in San Diego: “We always talked about it in San Diego, too, but I think he finally got the right information. He committed to a swing change, and it’s really paid dividends.
“I couldn’t be happier, because he’s a heck of a guy.”
The transformation commenced when Alonso incorporated a large leg kick and upper swing, getting his lower body in sync with his swing and generating much more power.
“I feel a part of me was stubborn before,” Alonso says. “I finally looked at myself and knew I needed to make changes. I needed to make improvements to stay in this game.
“I always felt like a strong guy in the weight room, but I wasn’t hitting like a strong guy. So I changed everything, and once I tried in the cage and really worked at it, I was committed to it. I tried to punish the ball and get the ball in the air.”
Suddenly, he felt like a new man. He no longer was a slap-hitting singles hitter, with the lowest career slugging percentage (.387) among active players.
Instead, he joined baseball’s elevation and celebration revolution. His fly-ball percentage is at a career-high 53%, compared with a career average of 33.7%, according to FanGraphs.
“I created this new mentality and stuck with it,” Alonso says. “Everything I went through just to get here, and all of the struggles I had in the past, just made me stronger.
“Really, it’s made me the person I am today.”
Perhaps the same person who could also be representing the Athletics next month at the All-Star Game, smack in his hometown, where his family’s dreams came true 20 years ago.
“I don’t want to think about it too much, because it’s still six weeks away, but I’ve got to tell you, it would pretty unbelievable,” Alonso says.
“For my parents, who made all of the sacrifices for me and my sister, it would be the topping of an ice cream sundae. A dream come true.
“I can’t even imagine how emotional that would be, not just for me, but for everyone, my entire family, everyone who helped me and believed in me along the way.
“I tell you, I’m blessed.”